MMR No. 2: Two Italian Thrillers from 1970

It happened quite by accident. I’ve been making a mental list of movies to look for for this feature and without really thinking about it, I plucked off that list two films from the same country and year, even roughly (though not exactly) the same genre.

On the one hand, we have The Spider’s Stratagemmade by Bernardo Bertolucci immediately following The Conformist, his first certified international classic and also an exploration of the effects of fascism on consciousness. At face value this film, adapted from a Borges short story, is a politically charged murder mystery. A young man named Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) arrives in the small town of Tara to investigate the murder of his father, 30 years prior. His father–also named Athos Magnani, establishing the first of the film’s many ambiguities–was an anti-fascist activist who died a hero to the town, but of course nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

The film dislodges its characters in time and space–the same actors are used in the present as in flashbacks, characters enter the frame from impossible angles, conversations continue smoothly over jumps in action. As the son probes deeper into the conditions that led to his father’s death, the boundary between the two of them becomes more and more insubstantial until eventually he is consumed by the enduring legend, trapped in Tara, waiting for a train that will only ever continue to be late. And he’s not the only one in such a state–the town itself seems to have been arrested in the past; early on Athos observes that there are no young people around, only old people who act young, occupying the same roles and positions in the insular community that they would have thirty years ago.

But what are we to make of this? Is the plot woven by Athos the elder, inspired by the tragedies of Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, MacBeth, and Othello all get specific shout-outs), the stratagem referred to by the title? In other words, has he trapped them all in an artificial bubble by abandoning a difficult truth in the name of political theater? That’s a possible interpretation, but then what’s the connection between his mistress Draifa (Alida Valli) and the lion escaped from the German circus that runs/ran wild through the town? Is she friend or foe, also trapped or the spider herself? Or both? What is the significance of Athos’s mother, conspicuously absent from the action? One gets the sense there is an underlying logic to Bertolucci’s symbolism, but he doesn’t seem completely interested in clarifying it.

But rather than detract from the thrust of the work, the lack of clarity works in its favor, intellectually, anyway. The movie is a vividly coloured (apparent even on the low-quality VHS copy I saw) puzzle box, something to be chewed on and mulled over. It rejects easy conclusions and pat narratives, suggesting that truth is always more complicated than the stories we tell ourselves (and each other). Which means it’s the sort of movie that, experientially, requires a certain amount of patience with European new wave experimentalism, in a way that a more fully realized work (like The Conformist) would transcend.

On the other hand, Dario Argento’s debut feature as a director, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, is a pretty rollicking bit of entertainment. Its mystery is a bit less obscure–an American writer living in Rome named Sam (Tony Musante) witnesses a woman (Eva Renzi) being stabbed in an art gallery one night, perhaps part of an ongoing series of murders in the city. Enabled by a very easygoing police inspector (Enrico Maria Salerno), Sam becomes obsessed with the case, convinced that something he saw doesn’t add up. Danger and intrigue follow, naturally.

The story has a kind of lurid, B-movie charm, elevated by an undeniably cool–and also vividly-coloured–visual style. But what struck me most about it was watching it in a particular context. For the past couple of years, every October I’ve been making my way through one of the classic slasher series–this year it’s the Halloween franchise–and its really fascinating to see so many of the elements of that genre already in place in a movie like this: spooky phone calls, sexually underpinned violence, absurd psychology, just the overall tone of stalking menace.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise–it’s no secret John Carpenter is an Argento fan and drew influence from the Italian giallo in general and his work specifically. It’s one of a number of foreign influences that worked into the mix of the American slasher; Grand Guignol’s graphic violence was French, Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock were British, etc. This quickly spitballed into reapproaching the film from a nationalist perspective.

It’s strange that the protagonist of an Italian-produced film is an American foreigner; Sam’s girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) points out, at least once, in response to his obsession that he’s “not even Italian!,” so the film acknowledges this. The eponymous animal–which makes a noise in the background of a recording, leading our heroes toward the killer–is a bird from Siberia, in other words Russia. The film was made right when the Years of Lead were kicking up so these national associations probably carried at least some weight in the public consciousness. One could potentially do an analysis from this perspective as easily as one could with Bertolucci’s more overtly political work.

Doing so would be both more involved and far drier than I really want to get with this writing. Perhaps it’s better to focus on the fact that The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is also a damn good thriller in a more straightforward sense. It made me realize how much, Suspiria aside, Argento’s work is a lacuna in my knowledge; he will likely show up in this feature again soon.

Next time though it’ll be a pair of… dysfunctional family dramas: Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist and Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In.

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